Mohamed Noor, a Minneapolis former police officer, was sentenced for more than 12 years. In response to the Minnesota Supreme Court’s recent ruling, which dismissed Noor’s most serious charges, a judge in state court imposed an additional sentence of half-time.
It is important to note that this development applies to Derek Chauvin (an ex-cop from Minneapolis who was indicted for the murder of George Floyd in May 2020). Like Noor Chauvin, Chauvin was also convicted for third-degree murder. This was clearly an inappropriate charge under the Minnesota Supreme Court’s last month approved reading of the statute. Chauvin, however, was also found guilty of second-degree killing, and the judge’s verdict will not change his sentence.
The high profile cases against officers suspected of illegally using deadly force demonstrate the difficulties that police officers face. Even though the charges may be legally unfounded, prosecutions are often forced to bring charges.
Noor’s case started on a Saturday evening in 2017. Justine Damond called the police to report a possible sexual assault in progress based on sounds she heard in an alleyway behind her house. Noor and Matthew Harrity (his partner) arrived shortly after Noor. They were “startled at a loud sound” when they suddenly saw Damond in the driver’s window. Each officer was scared enough to pull their guns. Only Noor opened his gun and struck Damond in the stomach. She died 20 minutes later.
Noor was charged with second-degree manslaughter. This seemed to be a clear fit for the facts. This applies to anyone who causes the death of another person through “culpable negligence” where the person intentionally takes the chance of inflicting great bodily injury or death on another.
Noor was also charged with third-degree murder of a “depraved mental mind”. This charge is more serious. The person who “causes” the death of another through an act considered eminently risky to their safety and displays a depraved mentality, disregarding human life is eligible for this charge. Some case law at the time suggested that this provision only applies to dangerous conduct such as shooting blindly into crowds, but not towards any one person.
This interpretation was confirmed by the Minnesota Supreme Court on September 15. It overturned Noor’s murder conviction, and ordered Noor’s resentence on the manslaughter count. “The mental state necessary for depraved-mind murder,” the court said, “is a generalized indifference to human life and—based on our precedent—cannot exist when the defendant’s conduct is directed with particularity at the person who is killed.”
This decision made a significant impact on Noor’s sentence. Maximum sentence for murder of the “depraved mind”, is 25 years. The presumptive punishment under Minnesota’s sentencing guidelines for a defendant who has not been convicted of a crime is 150 months (12.5 year), and Noor was sentenced to this in 2019. The maximum sentence for second-degree manslaughter by culpable neglect is 10 years, while the presumptive sentence for it is four years. Kathryn Quaintance, Hennepin County District Court judge, gave Noor four and nine months sentences yesterday, which reduced his initial sentence by 62 per cent.
Chauvin was clearly targeting Floyd like Noor. Floyd died when Chauvin tied him down to the pavement and held it there for nine minutes. Hennepin County District Judge Peter Cahill originally dismissed Chauvin’s “depraved brain” murder charge, but an appeals court overturned him. Cahill got it right with the Minnesota Supreme Court ruling.
Chauvin’s conviction of the second-degree unintentional murder charge will also not be favorable. It applies to someone who, “causes death of human beings, but does not intend to affect the death any other person”, while simultaneously committing, or trying to commit, a felony crime. While the maximum sentence for this crime is 40 years in prison, the presumptive sentence of 150 months is for the “depraved brain” murder. Cahill was sentenced to 270 months or 22.5 years based on several “aggravating circumstances”.
The Minnesota Supreme Court’s Noor case decision does not invalidate that sentence. But, felony killing is a controversial method of characterizing Chauvin. Many jurisdictions permit murder charges to be filed against those who are involved in felonies which turn deadly. This is even if the defendant didn’t attack or intend to harm the victim. Minnesota’s “independent felony” does not apply to the acts that led to the victim’s death. This is very unusual.
Chauvin’s case is different because the third-degree attack is considered the “felony offense” that underlies the second degree murder charge. It is also the same crime as Floyd. Minnesota has no independent felony law, so prosecutors may treat any unintentionally deadly assault as murder instead of manslaughter. The potential penalties are dramatically increased.
Ted Sampsell Jones was the professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law. He added that Minnesota’s felony murder rule is “a particularly weird form of it”—a point he reiterated after Chauvin was convicted in April. Sampsell Jones stated that Minnesota law was “way out on alimb” when it came to the definition of felony second degree murder. USA Today. We are one of the [few]States that allow assaults as a crime for felony murder.
It seems unlikely Chauvin would be able to appeal Minnesota’s broad definition of felony murder despite this anomaly. Greg Egan, public defender for Chauvin in 2018, noted that the 2018 appeal was unlikely. Mitchell Hamline Law Journalarticle. The Minnesota Supreme Court had a history of predicating felony murder doctrines on assault. He argued, however that this was not based upon any significant legal reasoning.
Chauvin was also convicted for second-degree murder, which, unlike Noor’s, could have resulted in a sentence that is similar to Noor’s. Former U.S. Attorney General Bob Barr reportedly worried that the sentence contemplated by a plea deal that Chauvin proposed a few days after Floyd’s death—”more than 10 years,” according to The New York Times—would be perceived as inadequate. Even more disappointment would result if the sentence was shorter than five years.
Prosecutors are still responsible for filing charges that can be legally supported by the facts. Long-standing issues about the felony crime doctrine are not extinguished by a defendant’s fame. This is particularly troubling because it allows prosecutors to convert manslaughter in murder if it seems that public opinion requires it.